The 1968 debate in Germany

Paul Hockenos
2 May 2008

There's no place like Germany for wrenching, introspective public debates over national history and collective memory. This phenomenon itself is one of the legacies of the 1967-69 student movement, known in shorthand in today's Bundesrepublik as "'68", and today the subject of bitter dispute.Paul Hockenos is an American writer living in Berlin. He is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Also by Paul Hockenos in openDemocracy:

"Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

In contrast to previous ten-year anniversaries, the fortieth has brought a thoroughgoing revisionist examination of the anti-establishment, countercultural uprising that had parallels across the globe and yet retained a singular character and style in what was then West Germany. The Studentenbewegung, which had been extolled as a "second founding of the republic" and the event responsible for "democratising democracy" in post-war Germany, is currently being compared to the Nazi movement of the 1930s and credited with incubating later societal ills - from teenage dereliction to the sagging birthrate. This kind of treatment has long been standard at conservative hands - but today it is coming from the ranks of former leftists, a number of them "68ers" themselves.

The world of a generation

Although I disagree fundamentally with the '68-bashing en vogue at the moment, I'm not particularly surprised to see it. A principal reason is that the student movement itself was so full of contradictions, it is relatively easy to build a one-sided case about it - as both detractors and hagiographers have - using some facts while ignoring others.

In the publications and speeches of its partisans, including the iconic Rudi Dutschke, it is possible to find vague calls to armed struggle alongside endorsements of civil disobedience; advocacy of guerrilla warfare in the "third world" alongside strategies for a "long march through the institutions"; adoration of Martin Luther King alongside homage of Mao Zedong and the Black Panthers. Some student rebels - self-acclaimed pacifists in the early 1960s - spoke of "October-style" revolution while others planned a Hegelian revolution in consciousness. They disparaged parliamentary democracy as elitist, but calls for "more democracy" punctuated all of their demands. The same young people who used the kibbutz as a model for their communes endorsed blinkered pro-Arab stands in the middle east. These different accents also underscore the movement's heterogeneity.Also in openDemocracy on legacies of 1968:

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968" (25 August 2004)

Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

Todd Gitlin, "Rethinking the kinetics of 1968" (11 April 2008)

Patrice de Beer, "May '68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

Sophie Quinn-Judge, "Hoang Minh Chinh: the honourable dissident" (30 April 2008)

The student partisans' relationship to the United States was equally complex. On the one hand, the war in Vietnam specifically and "US imperialism" in general were central to the movement. Amerikahaus cultural centres were routinely stoned and one of the protest chants was "USA-SA-SS", comparing the US to Nazi Germany. But the same protesters were philo-American in so many ways. They were conscious they were using protest forms pioneered in America - the sit-ins, teach-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience picked up from the US civil-rights movement. Their politics would have been inconceivable without Bob Dylan's lyrics, the works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the examples of Haight-Ashbury and the Berkeley free-speech movement. This post-war generation was incomparably more American - in so many ways - than its parents ever could have been.

The currents of politics

With a selective approach to the evidence (and an axe to grind) it is possible to make convincing arguments that the movement as a whole was anti-American, anti-semitic, undemocratic, and even totalitarian - and find plentiful material to back it up. This is exactly what the current '68 critics do. In his controversial new book Unser Kampf (Our Struggle, a play on the title of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf), the respected historian Götz Aly draws parallels between the illiberalism of the "'68 generation" and that of the "'33 generation", namely the Nazis who came to power that year.

He argues that both were mass movements that jettisoned parliamentary democracy and Enlightenment principles. In participating in Mao cults the "children of murderers" (the German students) ran after another mass murderer. The Federal Republic became a liberal, self-critical democracy not because of the student revolt, contends Aly, but in spite of it (see Götz Aly & Katharina Rutschky, "Back to Rudi Dutschke's pram", SignandSight, 7 January 2008).

This critique is different than that of the conservative right, which for years had blamed the students for undermining morality, respect for the law, and traditional notions of family and gender roles - in other words, exactly what the students set out to do.

Among critics like Götz Aly - and a good part of Germany's media too - the same kind of disingenuous selection takes place in respect to the movements that emerged from the Studentenbewegung in the 1970s. Indeed, this is where the debate should really begin: the 1967-69 student uprising in itself didn't change all that much - but the processes it set in motion did. In the aftermath of the dissolution of West Germany's Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS, the main student organisation), the student-movement's rebels scattered across the left side of the republic's political spectrum in late 1969, taking with them their younger brothers and sisters, those too young to have been on the barricades but old enough in the ‘60s to have become politically aware.

The post-student-movement groupings fall roughly into two categories: reformist and revolutionary. The overwhelming majority of ex-rebels took the reformist path: inspired by the far-reaching reforms of Willy Brandt's Social Democratic Party (SPD) government thousands flocked to the SPD (between 1969 and 1972, some 300,000 young people aged 18-25 joined the party.) Most critically, in my opinion, scores of former rebels took their ethic of self-initiative and do-it-yourself politics into local communities by forming single-issue grassroots citizens' initiatives. Many thousands of so-called Bürgerinitiativen mushroomed across the republic in the early 1970s.

Those who went the way of the revolutionary left were far smaller in number. Some formed their own sectarian Marxist-Leninist parties (the K-Gruppen), while even fewer (among them Joschka Fischer) took the path of anarcho-syndicalism. Just a handful - a tiny minority of a tiny minority - threw in their lot with armed struggle, the most prominent of those urban guerrillas being the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction / RAF).

It is little wonder that commentators like Aly, Gerd Koenen, Stefan Aust, and Wolfgang Kraushaar come to negative and cynical conclusions about the student revolt when they focus so exclusively on the 68ers' most radical bi-products like the K-Gruppen and the RAF. (It is also not surprising that all these figures had themselves been active members in the most sectarian of the leftist groups.) True, these small groupings had their roots in the student movement and the new left - but, in contrast to the reformists, they were the ones that failed to learn from the movement's dogmatism of attitude and crudity of judgments: evident in its ultra-leftism, its illusions about the working class, its skewed analysis of the Federal Republic as a proto-fascist state, its macho male ethic, and its insensitivity (to put it no higher) to Jewish issues.

The river of change

The current debate in Germany is further disabled by the fact that it completely misses the post-1968 grassroots campaigns that had the greatest impact on the republic: the Bürgerinitiativen that during the 1970s linked up to become the powerful "new social movements": the women's, the environmental, the anti-nuclear energy, and the peace movement. These mass movements, the biggest Germany had ever seen, mobilised millions of ordinary Germans: young and old, urban and rural, men and women - in stark contrast to the middle-class, university-based '68ers and the radical splinter groups of the '70s.

The citizen's initiatives and the new social movements introduced the republic to grassroots activism, anti-authoritarianism as practical experience, participatory democracy, and the complexity of gender relations. The republic's social movements played an enormous role in the development of a healthy civic consciousness and a pluralistic civil society in the Federal Republic (see Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany [Oxford University Press, 2008]).

It is astounding how little present this chapter of the Federal Republic is today in Germany's public discourse and memory. While there was extraordinary - and, for me, inexplicable - media hype around the thirtieth anniversary of the "German autumn" (the peak of RAF terror) in 2007, there was barely a word said about 1977 as the year that tens of thousands came together at Kalkar along the Lower Rhein and other nuclear sites to protest against atomic power.

Why are the new social movements so marginalised in Germany's discourses today? Why, if you go into just about any Gymnasium in the country, none of the pupils could tell you who Petra Kelly was? Even among politically active students at the universities, few are familiar with the wine-growers from Wyhl in the country's far southwestern corner, where in 1974 allied citizens' initiatives first blocked the construction of a nuclear-power plant. Why is there no single book that examines these movements' huge impact on the republic, yet there are over seventy-five on the minutiae of the RAF?

Today's Bundesrepublik Deutschland owes these protests movements a lot - and without '68 they would have been unimaginable. Heinrich Böll's remark that the RAF was "six against sixty million" is an understatement - but not by much, and it correctly underscores how tiny the Federal Republic's most radical groups were. It is legitimate to draw a line from the student revolt to the urban-guerrilla phenomenon. But Germany's new social movements - and its Die Grünen (Green Party) too - also have their origins there, and they are phenomena incomparably more important to the political culture of modern Germany.

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